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'Sabarimala issue is dividing Hindu society'

By Shobha Warrier
Last updated on: October 17, 2018 10:27 IST
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'The first time a ban on women aged between 10 and 50 entering Sabarimala came was in 1991 and was by a high court judgment.'
'So, it is only a 27-year-old ban.'
'The high court can fix customs and the Supreme Court can overturn it.'
'I don't see this as an attack on religious freedom or the practice of a religion.'

It appears the Sabarimala controversy will not end anytime soon.

Retired IAS officer and the well-known Malayalam writer, N S Madhavan, through a series of tweets supported the Supreme Court decision allowing women between the ages of 10 and 50 to go to the Sabarimala temple.

"Ayyappa's importance, unlike any other Hindu temple in Kerala, was that all castes could go there. But in the last 30 years, these people (the upper castes) are completely destroying this," Madhavan, below, tells's Shobha Warrier.

Do you think thousands of women coming onto the streets to protest against the Supreme Court order is a spontaneous one? Or, is it orchestrated by political parties?

I don't think it is spontaneous because the women who are coming out are conservative and they have not done any political activities so far.

I think this has happened only because of a bit of prodding, mainly by organisations such as the NSS (Nair Service Society) and similar community-based organisations. But these women are genuinely anti-Supreme Court judgment.

Were you surprised by the number?

It wasn't a surprise. But if you look at the protest rallies, you will see that geographically, it starts in the south and ends in Ernakulam. These are the areas where the NSS has a good hold over its members.

If the CPI-M wants to organise such rallies tomorrow, they can also do the same thing. They have the mechanism to organise such rallies.


You said the rallies are confined to southern Kerala. Does that mean Kerala society is divided over this issue?

Not geographically, but community-wise, yes.

You mean the upper castes and the rest of Kerala?

Yes, if you look at the protests, you will see that there is only one organisation that is behind it, which is the NSS.

The other major Hindu organisation in Kerala which is much bigger than the NSS is the SNDP (Sree Dharma Paripalana Yogam). It is the representative of the Ezhavas, but they are not with the agitation.

Thushar Vellapally, SNDP leader Vellapally Natesan's son, supports the protests and has spoken against the Supreme Court verdict. Of course, his father is on the other side...

I think the father and son are playing a political game like Akhilesh Yadav and Mulayam. I see a kind of adjustment between the father and son.

The SNDP is controlled by Vellapally and it is not with the protests. In fact, they are angry at the upper caste outrage.

The whole narrative is being taken over by the upper castes like the Pandalam family, the priests or the thantri family and the NSS.

The Pulaya Mahasabha representing the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes is also quite a sizeable number but against the protests.

So, the division is not geographical, but on a community basis.

Sabarimala is described as one temple that is beyond caste, creed and religion. People from all religions and castes go there to worship...

It is true that people from all castes and creeds used to worship there, but the customs are all decided by the coteries belonging to the upper castes.

The first time a ban on women aged between 10 and 50 entering Sabarimala came was in 1991 and was by a high court judgment. So, it is only a 27-year-old ban.

Before that, women used to go and take the steps behind the Sabarimala temple, and not the 18 steps (pathinettam padi). Neither the thantri nor the Devaswom Board had any problem with it then.

It was the high court judge who ordered the ban, which has no meaning. So, overturning this judgment was not overturning a custom.

Should the courts be deciding religious issues and customs?

I would say it is not a religious issue. It is a social issue. The person who is supposed to look after the customs is the thantri of the temple.

If you look at the temple entry agitation at Vaikom, the thantri did not allow Gandhiji inside his house.

So, when the customs are arbitrarily decided without the force of law, and when they are not religious customs, they can certainly be overturned by the court.

What is followed at Sabarimala is not there in any other Ayyappa temple or any other Hindu temple in Kerala. So, it is just one temple in Kerala that is following a custom. Should people be so concerned by this?

Those who are concerned are the women who are not permitted to go there and they have every right to feel that way. It is against the Constitution too.

So, it is discriminatory?

Yes, it is discriminatory and it has no divine sanction! You don't find this in any of the Hindu scriptures.

The origin of not allowing women between the age group 10 to 50 in Sabarimala is based on the 1991 high court judgment.

The high court can fix customs and the Supreme Court can overturn it.

I don't see this as an attack on religious freedom or the practice of a religion. It is actually bringing back normalcy to a skewed situation.

You had tweeted that this is not just a gender issue because you saw an upper caste narrative in this. Do you feel the upper castes make decisions on various customs are practices?

Yes, that is the reason.

You take the Travancore Devaswom Board. It has 5,000 employees out of which 90% are Nairs. They are the people who speak of various customs in Sabarimala.

But the story is that when he was young, Ayyappa went to an Ezhava family in Cheerappanchira near Cherthala, stayed with them and studied kalaripayattu.

This Cheerappanchira family was enjoying the right for vedi vazhipadu. This fetched a lot of income to the family, but this was changed and made it into an open auction so that the money went to the Devaswom Board.

Second is the Makara Vilakku. That was always lit by the tribals called Malaya Pandarams. The Devaswom Board took this right from them and they are directly doing it now.

Ayyappa's importance, unlike any other Hindu temple in Kerala, was that all castes could go there. But in the last 30 years, these people are completely destroying this.

You mean, the upper castes have taken over the temple?


What kind of political and social impact this will have on Kerala society?

I don't see any impact on Kerala society. I see it as a political game.

The main thing is the Nair vote bank of some areas in Trivandrum and in and around Pathanamthitta, Chengannur, etc has been going to the BJP in the last 10 to 15 years. So, it is actually a fight between the BJP and the Congress to win them.

I think the people of Kerala are intelligent enough to understand this narrow political game. There will not be any mass movement.

Some people say this issue will unite all the Hindus of Kerala who have been fragmented till now. Do you see anything of that sort happening?

This issue has actually disunited them because after a long time, you are seeing upper caste assertion in Kerala.

The Sabarimala issue is actually dividing Hindu society and not uniting them.

Is it not unfortunate?

Very, very. The caste organisations should have left the choice to the people concerned.

The NSS has gone for a review petition. Why should they again fight on the streets?

There are liquor shops in Kerala and any woman above the age of 21 can go there, but nobody goes there.

Similarly, the choice to go to Sabarimala should be with the women and nobody else.

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Shobha Warrier /